The flag of St Mark, flying proudly on the terrace, proclaims my onomastico - my own Saint's day!
My love affair was, however, severely tested that 2003 pilgrimage, for as we approached the St Mark's Basin, where once the Doge's gorgeous state barge was once moored, the heavens opened monsoon fashion. The fragile tracery of the Doge's place disappeared into a grey blur, and our pilgrim group disappeared into a nearby shop for a mass purchase of umbrellas, thoughtfully supplied by the retailer at three times the normal price.
Nevertheless, once inside, the magic works, the jaw drops, and we are transported to heaven. As at Westminster, it is the space that overwhelms, the massive volume of air seems as solid as the monumental masonry. The lower parts of the wall are encased in marble, familiar to us, of course, in our Cathedral's own Byzantine decoration. But above, where we know darkened brickwork, the domed vaults of St Mark's are coated with shimmering gold. Against their heavenly background, saintly figures glimmer, seeming to come and go. We are gazing, as the Byzantine artists intended, upon the vault of heaven. It is dimly lit - many would think too dimly - but this is part of the mystery. It occurred to me that ancient Venetians would never have had the benefit of today's high powered lights, and that even in the height of summer, the recesses of the basilica would have been shrouded in shadow. This is surely as intended. Byzantine churches do not bludgeon us, as in the baroque west, by pushing heaven into our faces. Here, all is subtlety and suggestion, an evocative glimpse for straining eyes.
Will Westminster Cathedral ever look like this? Certainly not in our lifetimes - but the intention is there, and St Mark's is the nearest we can know to the finished effect. I am struck at how simple the designs are in St Mark's; the plans for our Westminster mosaics, such are they are, crowd the vaults and walls with complex scenes, with throngs of interacting figures. In Venice, figures tend to stand alone, starkly and powerfully against the vast golden background. Even over the apse, the solitary figure of Christ reigns tremendously amid a heaven of shimmering gold. Of course, individual figures need to be impressive figures, and the question of finding craftsmen of the calibre of the mosaicists of St Mark's is an acute one.
Soon after Mass, we filed past the shrine of the saint himself. St Mark is buried in simple unadorned stone, but the Venetians have not been wanting in their devotion, having stolen the costliest relic in all Constantinople, the lavish and intricate altarpiece known as the Pala d'Oro, to adorn the evangelist's shrine. As I stood aside to offer a particular prayer to my namesake, I reflected that the solidity, beauty and subtlety of this basilica pay homage to the strength, beauty and subtlety of the first of the gospels. St Mark's is a monument to the superb pride and majesty of the Most Serene Republic, but also witnesses the hold of the gospel over a Christian people, and their ambitious desire to mirror the treasures therein in the most glorious creation of human hands.